Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis was right to disagree with President Donald Trump over his plan to withdraw US troops from Syria, a top civilian official at the Pentagon told congressional lawmakers on Wednesday.
Appearing before the House Armed Services Committee for a hearing on the Pentagon's counter terrorism strategy, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict Owen West was asked point blank by Democrat Rep. Seth Moulton whether his former boss was wrong to oppose the President's decision.
"Mr. West, your former boss, Secretary Mattis, disagreed with the President's plan to withdraw from Syria. Do you think he was wrong?" Mouton asked.
"No, sir," West responded after a short pause.
It was a brief, yet frank moment of acknowledgment by West, who currently serves as the principle civilian special operations and counter terrorism adviser to acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan who has steered clear of appearing to contradict the President since taking over Mattis following his resignation in December.
After the hearing, Moulton commended West for his "moral courage."
"Moral courage isn't often rewarded in Congress but Assistant Secretary of Defense Owen West clearly has it. Thank you for continuing to serve our country," he tweeted.
While Mattis' resignation letter to the President did not explicitly cite his opposition to removing US troops from Syria, the retired four-star general was privately adamant in urging Trump against the pullback.
Questions around Trump's unexpected decision to remove US military personnel from Syria have continued to swirl in the wake of Mattis' departure despite repeated claims by administration officials, and the President himself, that ISIS has been defeated.
And military leaders have been candid in their responses when asked about the planning process by lawmakers.
On Wednesday, West told lawmakers that he still did not know what strategic thinking went into the withdrawal decision.
"I do not know the strategic thinking that went into it," West said. "I know that we've been issued an order to deliberately withdraw."
Those comments came one day after the commander of US Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, said he "was not consulted" prior to the December announcement.
"I was not aware of the specific announcement. Certainly we are aware that he had expressed a desire and intent in the past to depart Iraq, depart Syria," Gen. Joseph Votel said Tuesday during a hearing held by the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"So you weren't consulted before that decision was announced?" asked Sen. Angus King, I-Maine.
"We were not, I was not consulted," Votel responded.
In December, Trump tweeted, "We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency," later releasing a video where he said US troops are "all coming back, and they're coming back now."
Members of the Trump administration have repeatedly sought to downplay ISIS' reach and impact in Syria since that announcement.
But top US military and intelligence officials have publicly pushed back on assertions that ISIS no longer poses a threat.
Votel said Tuesday that the fight against the terror group is "not over" and warned ISIS could regroup after US troops leave.
That assertion was backed up by the US intelligence community's Worldwide Threat Assessment, which states that with the recent loss of territory, "ISIS will seek to exploit Sunni grievances, societal instability, and stretched security forces to regain territory in Iraq and Syria in the long term."
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told members of the Senate Intelligence Committee last week that ISIS "has returned to its guerrilla warfare roots while continuing to plot attacks and direct its supporters worldwide."
But he also clearly stated that the group maintains a presence in Iraq and Syria.
"ISIS is intent on resurging and still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria," he said.
Asked Wednesday whether withdrawing troops from Syria could impact efforts to clear remaining ISIS forces, West initially argued that the US could maintain pressure on the terror group by employing "remote" advise and assist operations.
Ultimately however, West conceded that, "militarily, we will be less effective."
During his State of the Union address Wednesday, Trump pointedly chose not to repeat his false statement that ISIS has been defeated but did not back away from his commitment to withdrawing US troops from Syria.
"It is time to give our brave warriors in Syria a warm welcome home," Trump said, noting the US would continue to work to "destroy the remnants of ISIS."
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday also sought to reassure allies of the US' commitment to the fight against ISIS, despite nearly two months of tumult and mixed messaging from the Trump administration.
In remarks to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS ministerial at the Department of State, Pompeo acknowledged that "there is more work ahead of us" to permanently defeat ISIS.
"The recent suicide bombing in Manbij incident shows that ISIS remains a dangerous threat in territory it does not control," Pompeo said. That attack, for which ISIS claimed responsibility, killed four Americans and at least 10 other people.
However, Pompeo claimed that the fight against ISIS "might not necessarily be military-led."
"That's why President Trump's announcement that US troops will be withdrawing from Syria is not the end of America's fight," he claimed.
"The fight is one that we will continue to wage alongside of you," Pompeo continued. "The drawdown of troops is essentially a tactical change, it is not a change in mission. It does not change the structure, design or authorities on which the campaign has been based. It simply represents a new stage in an old fight."
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